What Music is Ours?

What Music is Ours?

Outside Severance Hall

Cleveland’s Severance Hall, home to the Cleveland Orchestra since 1931, looms from the sidewalk as a cathedral to culture.

I’ve written before on these pages about the disconnect I initially had with classical music because it seemed completely unrelated to my life growing up in New York City in the 1970s. My family was slightly older than those of most of my contemporaries so rock was not really much of a presence in my household, but Broadway musical cast albums were. And since the real thing was less than a mile away from where I lived and balcony seats were only twice the price of movie tickets at the time, I got a lot of first-hand exposure as well. My immersion into the world of Broadway musicals eventually led to an exploration of opera, an interest that was helped along by free staged productions in Central Park and that led to listening to orchestral music, which also got performed for free in the summertime. But what made me finally care deeply about it was when I discovered that people who walked the same streets I walked also created this kind of music. But I could never figure out why the music by our own composers got played much less frequently than music by folks who had died long before I was born and who, when they were alive, were based in lands on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean—an unfathomable vastness that I had only caught glimmers of the few times I ventured out to Coney Island. (I never liked beaches or swimming.) Eventually I discovered a whole network of new music ensembles where stuff from the here and now was front and center and I believed I had found my musical home. It was a belief that was reinforced as punk rock became the soundtrack of my peers—they thought they were rebellious? They had no idea! But at the same time it bothered me that few people seemed to know about this stuff and that the audiences for most of the concerts I attended and eventually participated in seemed like a closed coterie. I got more and more interested in ethnomusicology, in exploring musical traditions that people very far away from me had created which to me were no further away than the orchestra music by the dead guys from overseas. I eventually came to realize that we are living in an era where the music of all times and places belongs to everyone.

I’m reiterating all these thoughts I’ve had about the relationship of music and geography over the years because I spent several days of last week in Cleveland to serve as the master of ceremonies for “California Masterworks,” a series concerts presented at the Cleveland Museum of Art featuring the Cleveland Orchestra (led by its dynamic assistant conductor James Feddeck) which focused on the music of California composers. The first program opened with the uncompromising 1928 Sinfonietta by Menlo Park native Henry Cowell, arguably the first internationally renowned composer from California. Next up was the world premiere of Out of the Darkness, a five-movement tone poem by Dane Rudhyar which he composed in 1982, only three years before his death. Although Rudhyar was born and raised in France, he came to the United States in 1916 and settled in California in the 1920s, residing in various parts of the state for the remainder of his long life. Steve Rose, principal second violinist of The Cleveland Orchestra, served as the soloist for the concluding work on the first program, the gorgeous Suite for Violin and String Orchestra, a 1993 composer-approved reworking of the 1974 Suite for Violin and American Gamelan by Lou Harrison. Though born in Oregon, Harrison spent most of his life in Northern California.

The second orchestra program began with the rapturous Shaker Loops by John Adams, another transplant to California who is now intimately identified with the state. Clang by James Tenney followed. Though Tenney lived all over North America, he spent ten years of his life in California during which time he wrote this intense, highly experimental piece and the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of it marked the first documented time it had ever been done outside of California. The concert concluded with The Sands, a fox-trot and raga infused concerto for string quartet and orchestra by the bona-fide life-long Californian Terry Riley. For that performance the orchestra was joined by the Calder Quartet which is currently based in Los Angeles and has become an important champion of Riley’s vast string oeuvre. (In 2010, to honor Terry Riley’s 75th birthday, they even made a special limited edition LP–of 75 copies!–of Riley’s earliest string quartet, from 1960, and his string trio. The album is also available digitally.)

To conclude the week’s festivities, I shared performance duties playing one of five harpsichords clustered on a raised platform in the middle of museum’s atrium for what was in all likelihood the Cleveland premiere of HPSCHD by John Cage and Lejaren Hiller, a happening featuring live music, pre-recorded electronics, and film projections that was originally mounted at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign in 1969. Admittedly, its connection to California was more tenuous than the rest of the week’s offerings—after all, Lejaren Hiller was born in NYC and taught at Urbana during HPSCHD’s composition, at which time Cage was based in New York. But Cage was born and raised in Los Angeles and presumably the exploratory spirit of California gave him his initial encouragement. Through all the events, the audience energy was extremely positive as was the vibe from the orchestra musicians, many of whom clearly loved this atypical immersion into programs of exclusively contemporary American music.

HPSCHD in Cleveland

The performance of John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s HPSCHD in the atrium of the Cleveland Museum of Art was, to the best of everyone’s knowledge, the first time this zany 1969 gesamkunstwerk had ever been performed in this city. During the proceedings I did the best I could on two different harpsichords, stopwatch in tow, plunking my way through “Solo 1”–twenty minutes of precisely timed (to the one thousandth of a second) single pitches spread out on a total of sixty pages of staff paper.

But all this talk about the geographical origins of music raises some interesting questions for us in the early years of the 21st century. What music is actually ours? Why did two important cultural institutions in the state of Ohio—the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Museum of Art—make such an investment in the cultural legacy of a state that is 2000 miles away and bring in a guy based in New York to talk about it? (I had several entertaining conversations with audience members who asked me what part of California I was from.) In my opening remarks for the first concert, I talked about how the so-called “American Century,” the one previous to this one, was in many ways the “California Century.” After all, what has been more influential on the world’s cultural landscape than Hollywood movies? Then there’s Napa Valley which finally challenged Europe’s wine hegemony, the whole farm-to-table food movement which has its origins in the ideas of Alice Waters and her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, and the hard-boiled (though not edible) detective novels that made the whole world aware of Los Angeles street names. And don’t forget the Summer of Love which played out in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco (five years earlier, Tony Bennett had already left his heart in that city), or Silicon Valley and its role in transforming our world into a technocracy in the closing years of the 20th century taking us to where we are right now.

Giant Electric Guitar

This giant electric guitar outside Glidden House, where I stayed the three nights I was in Cleveland last week, is one of many reminders around town that Cleveland is the official birthplace of rock and roll.

But what does any of this have to do with Cleveland? Cleveland’s biggest stake in music history is radio DJ Alan Freed describing the music he was broadcasting on his Cleveland radio show as “rock and roll” for the very first time. The Cleveland Arena (demolished in 1977) was also the site of one of the earliest rock and roll concerts—the Moondog Coronation Ball, which was organized by Freed and held on March 21, 1952. (One of Freed’s early broadcasts has been posted to YouTube.) To honor Cleveland’s role in the birth of this music, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was built there and is now one of Cleveland’s most profitable tourist destinations. To celebrate this, sculptures of giant electric guitars grace numerous public spaces in town, including the Cleveland Airport. And yet most people would be hard pressed to name a rock band from Cleveland. The Styrenes and Pere Ubu, both of which hail from Cleveland, as does Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, though none have yet been inducted into the Hall of Fame and all deserve to be much better known. There have also been some very significant composers in Cleveland—Donald Erb (1927-2008) immediately comes to mind. Geneva-born Ernest Bloch spent five important years in Cleveland, during which time he served as the first director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, composed his still frequently performed Concerto Grosso No. 1, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Then there’s the recently deceased Edwin London (1929-2013) who, though born in Philadelphia, was trained just a half-hour’s drive away at Oberlin (which has long been a hotbed of new music) and spent the last 35 years of his life in The Forest City composing numerous works as well as leading the new music focused Cleveland Chamber Symphony.

Inside Severance

The inside of Cleveland’s Severance Hall is as majestic as the outside.

But, then again, those 2000 miles that separate Ohio and California are less than half the distance separating Cleveland from Austria, which is where the Cleveland Orchestra’s music director Franz Welser-Möst was born and which is also the birthplace of so much of the music that the orchestra has regularly performed since they were founded in 1918. In fact, I was able to catch an additional concert by the Cleveland Orchestra—led by Dutch-born guest conductor Ton Koopman at their stunning 1931-built home venue Severance Hall—which was devoted exclusively to Austro-Germanic music. The program opened with Mozart’s Symphony No. 1 in Eb Major, K. 16 (written when he was eight years old) and closed with Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 in F# minor (a personal favorite which is one of the earliest examples of performance art—during the last movement, players exit the stage sequentially until only a pair of violinists remain). Sandwiched in between was the Symphony in C Major with Eight Obbligato Timpani, a work now attributed to Johann Carl Christian Fischer. (It was formerly attributed to Johann Wilhelm Hertel whose name appears on the LP recording of it I’ve had since the early 1980s. Thanks to Koopman’s intense work with the members of the Cleveland Orchestra they sounded like they were playing period instruments even though they were wielding their regular axes.

So what music ultimately belongs to Cleveland? After hearing what they did with both Californian and the Austrian orchestra music and seeing constant reminders of civic pride and a sense of stewardship for the entire history of rock all over town, I’d have to say, clearly, all of it. But perhaps even more importantly, all of this music belongs to all of us, too.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

4 thoughts on “What Music is Ours?

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    Yes, the music belongs to all of us. Thanks for this extremely complete report from Cleveland.

    I don’t think that is strange that the Cleveland Orchestra did this homage to Californian music. Is one of the great American orchestras playing pieces by important American composers, related to a specific region of the US. And a very important one, with trascendental names like Cowell.

    I’m glad that a big orchestra is doing all-American programmes or even all-contemporary programmes.

    Soon I’ll be in Buenos Aires, where the BA Philharmonic will do a whole concert devoted to Xenakis (wow!). I’ll tell you more about that privately.

  2. Reynold Tharp

    Dennis Eberhard (1943-2005) was a very interesting and talented composer who was born in Cleveland, studied there, and lived most of his life there. He was, coincidentally, also involved in the original performance of HPSCHD at the University of Illinois, where he also studied. The first piece of his I heard, the beautiful “Bells of Elsinore,” was a commission from the Cleveland Orchestra. From the brief time I knew him as an undergraduate, I remember him particularly as a wonderfully unorthodox teacher and a quite memorable raconteur as well. Some of his music is recorded on Naxos.

  3. Joel Harrison

    Frank- a great article as usual. Having lived in said California 12 of my 55 years I have a certain vantage. Yes, California has been important to our cultural landscape, though quite often for the wrong reasons. Some tremendous jazz and groundbreaking classical music has emanated from there since at least 1950. But the idea of a “california sound” is mostly promoted by concert presenters- it is more myth than fact in my opinion. Certainly the Asian influence via Lou Harrison and Terry has been important, but the list gets pretty short after that of folks who really had a huge influence. The series in Cleveland sounds like a wonderful one, and great that they did it, probably largely because of wise Tom Welch and his devotion to Terry? It sounds like a very progressive weekend.
    But I am leery of making too much of California. People used to say I had a “west coast sound.” No…there is no such thing anymore, if there ever was. We’re all so mixed now… maybe the greatest thing that the California composers did ( a handful anyway) was begin to strip away the idea of eurocentrism and “style”. In that sense I am in deep agreement with your central point.

  4. alvin curran


    From your title, I was all set for a major tour through trials and tribulations of music’s ownership in these blazing digital times. Instead you took us – via Cleveland – to the “left-coast’ where the transcendental meets the experimental, daily and where for as long as anyone can remember the music, all of it, always belonged to everyone. Thanks!

    best, alvin c


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